|Symbionese Liberation Army|
SLA seven-headed cobra symbol
|Dates of operation||1973–1975|
|Leader||Donald DeFreeze, a.k.a. "General Field Marshal Cinque"
Died in police shootout May 17, 1974 (aged 30)
|Motives||Guerrilla warfare and proletarian revolution|
|Active region(s)||California, United States|
|Major actions||Shootings, murders, robberies and kidnapping|
|Notable attacks||November 6, 1973 shooting of two school administrators
February 4, 1974 kidnapping of Patty Hearst
April 15, 1974 Hibernia bank robbery
May 16, 1974 Mel's Sporting Goods shot up
May 17, 1974 LA shoot out most members are killed
April 21, 1975 Crocker National Bank robbery
|Status||Final action and confrontation in 1975|
The Symbionese Liberation Army (SLA) was an American self-styled militant group active between 1973 and 1975 that considered itself a revolutionary vanguard army. The group committed bank robberies, two murders and other acts of violence.
The SLA became internationally notorious for kidnapping media heiress Patty Hearst, abducting the 19-year-old as she and her 26-year-old boyfriend, Steven Weed, sat relaxing in their Berkeley, California home. National interest grew into worldwide fascination when Hearst, in audiotaped messages delivered to (and broadcast by) regional news media, denounced her parents and announced she had joined the SLA She was subsequently observed participating in their illegal activities. Hearst later alleged that she had been held in close confinement, sexually assaulted and brainwashed.
In his manifesto "Symbionese Liberation Army Declaration of Revolutionary War & the Symbionese Program," Donald DeFreeze wrote, "The name 'symbionese' is taken from the word 'symbiosis' and we define its meaning as a body of dissimilar bodies and organisms living in deep and loving harmony and partnership in the best interest of all within the body." 
Although the SLA considered themselves leaders of the black revolution, DeFreeze was its only black member. His seven-headed SLA cobra symbol was based on seven principles, with each head representing a principle. They are: Umoja (Unity), Kujichagulia (self-determination), Ujima (collective work and responsibility), Ujamaa (cooperative economics), Nia (purpose), Kuumba (creativity) and Imani (faith).
The appearance of the symbol of the seven-headed cobra on SLA propaganda indicates that it was copied from the ancient Sri Lankan / Indian seven-headed nāga; carved stones depicting a seven-headed cobra are commonly found near the sluices of the ancient irrigation tanks in Sri Lanka and are believed to have been placed there as guardians of the water. The particular graphic of the seven-headed cobra used by the SLA may have been copied from an illustration in The Lost Continent of Mu by James Churchward.
Russell Little attests that the group's primary activity during this period was acquiring and storing firearms and learning to use the weapons at public shooting ranges (Stone 2004).
The SLA formed as a result of the prison visitation programs of the radical left-wing group Venceremos Organization and a group known as the Black Cultural Association in Soledad prison. The idea of a South American–styled urban guerrilla movement, similar to the Tupamaros movement in Uruguay, combined with Régis Debray's theory of urban warfare and ideas drawn from Maoism, appealed to a number of people, including Patricia Michelle Soltysik (a.k.a. "Mizmoon").
Some activists within the New Left compared America's prison system to concentration camps designed to oppress African Americans. They believed that a majority of African American convicts were political prisoners, and that Black power ideology would naturally appeal to them. Group member Willie Wolfe developed this ideology into a plan for action, linking student activists with prison militants (Stone 2004).
The SLA formed after the escape from prison by Donald DeFreeze, a.k.a. "General Field Marshal Cinque." He had been serving 5–15 years for robbing a prostitute. DeFreeze took the name Cinque from the leader of the slave rebellion who took over the slave ship Amistad in 1839. DeFreeze escaped from the Soledad State Prison on March 5, 1973 by simply walking away while on work duty in a boiler room located outside the perimeter fence.
DeFreeze had been active in the Black Cultural Association while at the California Medical Facility, a state prison facility in Vacaville, California, where he had made contacts with members of Venceremos. He sought refuge among these contacts, and ended up at a commune known as Peking House in the San Francisco Bay Area. For some time he shared living quarters with future SLA. members Willie Wolfe and Russ Little, then moved in with Patricia Michelle Soltysik. DeFreeze and Soltysik became lovers and began to outline the plans for forming the "Symbionese Nation".
On November 6, 1973, in Oakland, California, two members of the SLA killed school superintendent Marcus Foster and badly wounded his deputy, Robert Blackburn, as the two men left an Oakland school board meeting. The hollow-point bullets used to kill Dr Foster had been packed with cyanide.
The SLA had condemned Foster for his plan to introduce identification cards into Oakland schools. The SLA called him "fascist". Ironically, Foster had originally opposed the use of identification cards in his schools, and his plan was a watered-down version of other similar proposals. Foster, an African American, was popular on the Left and in the black community.
On January 10, 1974, Joseph Remiro and Russell Little were arrested and charged with Foster's murder, and initially both men were convicted of murder. Both men received sentences of life imprisonment. Seven years later, on June 5, 1981, Little's conviction was overturned by the California Court of Appeal, and he was later acquitted in a retrial in Monterey County.
In response to the arrests of Remiro and Little, the SLA began planning their next action: the kidnapping of an important figure to negotiate the release of their imprisoned members (Stone, 2004). Documents found by the US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI) at one abandoned safe house revealed that an action was planned for the "full moon of January 17." The FBI did not take any precautions, and the SLA did not act until a month later (Stone, 2004). On February 4, 1974, publishing heiress Patricia Hearst, a sophomore at the University of California at Berkeley, was kidnapped from her Berkeley residence at Apartment 4, 2603 Benvenue Avenue. The SLA had chosen to kidnap Hearst to increase the news coverage of the incident.
Initially, the SLA issued an ultimatum to the Hearst family: that they would release Patricia in exchange for the freedom of Remiro and Little. When such an arrangement proved impossible, the SLA demanded a ransom, in the form of a food distribution program. The value of food to be distributed fluctuated: on February 23 the demand was for $4 million; it peaked at $400 million. Although free food was actually distributed, the operation came to a halt when violence erupted at one of the four distribution points (Stone, 2004).
The FBI was conducting an ineffective search, and the SLA took refuge in a number of safe houses. While in the SLA's custody, Hearst claims she was subjected to a series of ordeals that her mother would later describe as "brainwashing". The change in Hearst's politics has been attributed to the Stockholm syndrome, a psychological response in which a hostage exhibits apparent loyalty to the abductor. Hearst was later examined by specialist psychologist Margaret Singer, who came to the same conclusion.
At Hearst's subsequent trial, her lawyer claimed that she had been confined in a closet barely large enough for her to lie down in; that her contact with the outside world was regulated by her captors; and that she was regularly threatened with execution. In addition, Hearst's lawyer contended that she had been raped by DeFreeze and Wolfe, but, because both men died before Hearst's capture and trial, charges were never brought against them. The SLA claimed to be holding Hearst according to the conditions of the Geneva convention.
The SLA subjected Hearst to indoctrination in SLA ideology. In Hearst's taped recordings, used to announce demands and conditions, Hearst can first be heard extemporaneously expressing SLA ideology on day 13 of her capture (Stone 2004).
With each successive taped communiqué, Hearst voiced increasing support for the aims of the SLA. She eventually denounced her former life, her parents, and fiancé. At that point, she claimed that when the SLA had given her the option of being released or joining the SLA, she chose the latter. After she adopted the SLA's ideology, she announced that she was using the nom de guerre "Tania".
The next action taken by the SLA was to rob a branch of the Hibernia Bank at 1450 Noriega Street in San Francisco; during this incident, two civilians were shot. (Stone 2004) At 10:00 a.m. on April 15, 1974, SLA members burst into the bank.
Hearst participated in the robbery, holding a rifle, and the security camera footage of Hearst became an iconic image. (Hearst was tried and convicted for her involvement in the Hibernia Bank robbery. Her sentence was later commuted by Jimmy Carter and her crime eventually pardoned by Bill Clinton.) She has denied willing involvement in the robbery in her book, Every Secret Thing. The outlaw group was able to get away with over $10,000.
The SLA, seeking to increase its membership, was finding no recruits in the Bay Area. Consequently, Cinque, suggested moving the organization to his former neighborhood, where he had friends whom they might recruit. However, they relocated in a sloppy manner and had much difficulty in becoming established on their new turf. The SLA relied on commandeering housing and supplies in Los Angeles, and thus alienated the people who were ensuring their secrecy and protection. At this stage, the imprisoned SLA member Russell Little claimed that he believed the SLA had entirely lost sight of its goals and entered into a confrontation with the police rather than a political dialogue with the public (Stone 2004).
On May 16, 1974, "Teko" and "Yolanda" (William and Emily Harris) entered Mel's Sporting Goods Store in Inglewood, California, to shop for supplies for their safehouse. While Yolanda made the purchases, Teko on a whim tried to shoplift socks (Stone 2004). When a security guard confronted him, Teko brandished a revolver. The guard knocked the gun from his hand and placed a handcuff on William's left wrist. Hearst, on armed lookout from the group's van across the street, began shooting up the store's overhead sign. Everyone in the store took cover and they drove off with Hearst.
As a result of the botched-shoplifting incident, the police acquired the address of the safehouse from a parking ticket in the glove box of the van (the vehicle had been abandoned). The rest of the SLA fled the safehouse when they saw the events on the news. The SLA took over a house occupied by Christine Johnson and Minnie Lewisin. One of the people in the house was a then-17-year-old neighbor Brenda Daniels who was sleeping on the couch. She recalls when she first woke up:
I went down to Minnie’s every Thursday evening to play some cards and drink a little. I fell asleep early and when I woke up around two A.M. I saw four white women and three dudes—two blacks and one white. I saw guns spread out all over the floor, an’ I asked them why they had guns, more than I’d ever seen in my life. They didn’t answer, and, instead, the black dude asked me my name and then introduced me to everyone.
[When asked if Patty Hearst was there]
Man, how can I tell? All white women look the same to me.—Brenda Daniels, 
The next day, an anonymous phone call to the Los Angeles Police Department (LAPD) stated that several heavily armed people were staying at the caller's daughter's house. That afternoon, more than 400 LAPD officers, under the command of Captain Mervin King, along with the FBI, California Highway Patrol, and Los Angeles Fire Department surrounded the neighborhood. The haunch leader of a SWAT team used a bullhorn to announce, "Occupants of 1466 East 54th Street, this is the Los Angeles Police Department speaking. Come out with your hands up!" A small child walked out, along with an older man. The man stated that no one else was in the house, but the child reported that several people were in the house with guns and ammo belts. After several more attempts to get anyone else to leave the house, a member of the SWAT team fired tear gas projectiles into the house. This was answered by heavy bursts of automatic gunfire, and a battle began.
Two hours later, the house caught fire. The police again announced, "Come on out! The house is on fire! You will not be harmed." Two women left from the rear of the house and one came out the front (she had come in drunk the previous night, passed out, and woken up in the middle of the siege); all were taken into custody, but were found not to be SLA members. Automatic weapons fire continued from the house. At this point, Nancy Ling Perry and Camilla Hall came out of the house. Investigators working for their parents would claim that they walked out intending to surrender and that they were unarmed but police later stated that Hall was shot in the head by police as she charged towards them and Perry was providing covering fire. After Hall's body fell to the ground, it was pulled back inside the burning house by Angela Atwood. Perry followed Hall out of the house and was shot twice in the back. Her body remained outside the house.
The rest died inside, from smoke inhalation, burns and gunshot wounds. According to the coroner's report, it was concluded that Donald DeFreeze committed suicide. After the shooting stopped and the fire was extinguished, 19 firearms—including rifles, pistols, and shotguns—were recovered. Several thousand rounds were reported fired into the home by police and they reported thousands of rounds being fired out of the house by the SLA. This remains one of the largest police shootouts in history with a reported total of over 9,000 rounds being fired. Not a single round fired by the SLA hit a target.
The SLA dead were: Nancy Ling Perry ("Fahizah"), Angela Atwood ("General Gelina"), Willie Wolfe ("Cujo", who was reported to be Patricia Hearst's lover), Donald DeFreeze ("Cinque"), and Patricia Soltysik ("Mizmoon," "Zoya"). Most of the bodies were found huddled in a crawl space under the house, which had burned down around them.
New broadcasting technology (smaller portable cameras and more nimble and versatile mobile units that made it easier to cover unfolding news events) had recently been acquired by area TV stations, so Hearst and the Harrises were able to watch the televised siege live from their hotel room in Anaheim.
As a result of the siege, the remaining SLA members returned to the relative safety of the Bay Area and protection of student radical households. At this time, a number of new members gravitated towards the SLA (Stone 2004). The active participants at this time were: Bill and Emily Harris, Patty Hearst, Wendy Yoshimura, Kathleen and Steve Soliah, James Kilgore and Michael Bortin.
On April 21, 1975, the remaining members of the SLA robbed the Crocker National Bank in Carmichael, California, and in doing so killed Myrna Opsahl, a bank customer. Hearst claimed to have been sitting in the getaway car.
Much later, Patty Hearst, after being granted immunity from prosecution for this crime, claimed that Emily Harris, Sara Jane Olson, Michael Bortin, and James Kilgore actually committed the robbery, while she and Wendy Yoshimura were getaway drivers and William Harris and Steven Soliah acted as lookouts. Hearst also claimed that Opsahl was killed by Emily Harris, but that she was not a witness.
Patricia Hearst, after a long and highly publicized manhunt, was captured with Wendy Yoshimura in September 1975. In her affidavit, she claimed that SLA members had used LSD to drug her and forced her to take part in the bank raid. However, Hearst's recorded statements, along with the fact that she had not escaped when she had the opportunity, made many think she had thrown in her lot with the revolutionaries. Despite her claims, she was convicted of the Hibernia Bank robbery and sentenced to seven years in prison, but only served 21 months when her sentence was commuted by US President Jimmy Carter. Eventually she was pardoned by President Bill Clinton.
On August 21, 1975, Kathleen Soliah failed in her attempt to kill officers of the LAPD when the bombs she placed under a police car did not detonate.
The FBI caught up with and arrested Sara Jane Olson in 1999 after a tip was received by the television show America's Most Wanted, which had aired her profile. In 2001, she pled guilty to possession of explosives with the intent to murder and was sentenced to two consecutive ten-years-to-life terms, after being told as part of plea bargain that she would serve only eight years.
On January 16, 2002, first-degree murder charges for the killing of Myrna Opsahl were filed against Sara Jane Olson, the Harrises, Bortin, and Kilgore. All were living "above ground" and were immediately arrested except for James Kilgore, who remained at large for nearly another year.
On November 7, Soliah, the Harrises, and Bortin pled guilty to those charges. Emily Harris, now known as Emily Montague, admitted to being the one holding the murder weapon, but said that the shotgun went off accidentally. Hearst claims that Montague had dismissed the murder at the time saying, "She was a bourgeois pig anyway. Her husband is a doctor." In court, Montague denied this and said "I do not want [the Opsahl family] to believe that we ever considered her life insignificant."
Sentences were handed down on February 14, 2003 in Sacramento, California for all four defendants in the Opsahl murder case. Montague was sentenced to eight years for the murder (2nd degree). Her former husband, William Harris, got seven years, and Bortin got six years. Soliah has had six years added to the 14-year sentence she is already serving. All sentences were the maximum allowed under their plea bargains.
On November 8, 2002 James Kilgore, who had been a fugitive since 1975, was arrested in South Africa and extradited to the United States to face federal explosives and passport fraud charges. Prosecutors alleged a pipe bomb was found in Kilgore's apartment in 1975, and that he obtained a passport under a false name. He pled guilty to the charges in 2003.
Sara Jane Olson was expecting a five-year, four-month sentence, but "in stiffening Olson's sentence two years ago, the prison board turned to a seldom-used section of state law, allowing it to recalculate sentences for old crimes in light of new, tougher sentencing guidelines." Olson was sentenced to 14 years, later reduced to 13 years, plus six for her role in the Opsahl killing. Hearst had immunity because she was a state's witness, but as there was no trial she never testified.
On April 26, 2004, Kilgore was sentenced to 54 months in prison for the explosives and passport fraud charges. He was the last remaining SLA member to face federal prosecution.
After serving six years of the prison sentence, Sarah Olsen was released on parole and reunited with her family in California on March 17, 2008. But after a discovery that her release was premature due to a clerical error, an arrest warrant was issued. She was arrested at Los Angeles International Airport and notified that her right to travel out of state had been rescinded. She was returned to prison.
On March 17, 2009 Sarah Olsen was released, this time correctly after serving 7 years of her 14 year sentence. She was to check in with her parole officer in Los Angeles where it would be determined if she would be allowed to serve her parole in St. Paul, Minnesota with her husband and three daughters. Several officials, including the Governor of Minnesota, urged that she serve her parole in California.
On May 10, 2009, James Kilgore was released from prison in California. He was the last captured SLA member to be released.
Founding member Joseph Remiro remains in prison as of 2009.
The SLA distributed photographs, news releases and radio-quality taped interviews in which they explained their past activities to the press. The first television media frenzy orchestrated by the SLA occurred outside the Hearst family residence at the time of Hearst's kidnapping.